In Defense of Libraries

Libraries are okay in my book.

12 February 2012

Damn it, I’m in a library again. I took the train from London to Oxford; I walked around a bit and saw some things. Obviously I looked at the university buildings - all very nice etcetera - but, please don’t think I’m being nit-picky here, some of them were a little bit old. I thought about getting a Reader’s card so I could investigate Oxford’s academic libraries from the inside, but I couldn’t be bothered dancing with university bureaucrats. This is a vacation after all, not a standard work day.

At length I found my way to Oxford’s public library instead and started writing this blog entry there. I’ve spent my entire life in libraries. Right through school I spent lunch hours reading, and libraries were the safest place to do that. Many aren’t aware of this but I am actually the only Australian born in our post-Federation period (ie. after 1900) who doesn’t understand sport. It’s true; I have a certificate somewhere, issued to me in person by our Governor-General, apologizing in sad regret for being unable to convey cricket so that it might resonate with me.

I know many pitied me for this condition but I should point out its unseen benefits; entire worlds awaited me on the shelves of our school library. Besides, outside the library, apart from it being really hot, there were always a few hundred kids in the playground (invariably called Davo, Stevo or Kevin or something) who regarded my lack of interest in rugby as some kind of insanely depraved provocation that struck at the very heart of their self-identity. And I have to be fair here, I really left them with little choice other than to attack me on sight. Don’t worry: by the time I left high-school I had more hand-to-hand combat experience than your average drunken monkey on vacation at a Shaolin monastery. But the point here is that I was acquiring a sense of the world; when I read a library book I was delving beyond my socio-economic limitations (being poor and all that) into the ancestral knowledge of our people. It was in the library that I became literate and tricky.

I was still in high school when I ran away from home, after which I practically lived in two public libraries, partly because books could keep me diverted, and also because the buildings were air-conditioned. They also had restrooms, a minor mention but of incalculable value to a homeless kid. (The Oxford public library doesn’t have these facilities - you have to walk down the road to Marks and Spencer, in case you’re reading this in the Oxford public library right now and have to go.)

After homelessness and high school I managed to luck myself into university, but not because I’d taken the time to study. I was young, homeless and for very solid reasons profoundly angry - I don’t think I studied more than a few hours for any exam in high school anyway. But I’d been continuously reading novels since I was seven years old, so exams were a piece of cake.

And there I was suddenly at university - what was I going to do? Where would I spend most of my time? I could simply ask the question this way: where was I most likely to bump into nerdy girls who read Jane Austen? And so it goes.

Later, in my professional life (if anybody who has worked alongside me would call it that) I wound up working in a Harvard library for years and years. And that was through no fault of my own: in fact it was a complete accident, though I can’t be bothered explaining it right now, I’ll get around to that some other day.

The point is that there have been a lot of libraries in my life, and not very much money. It’s not a bad thing when a destitute Australian runaway winds up working at an American Ivy League university. I mean, upward class mobility is rarer than people prefer to think. So I get annoyed when middle-class twits point at working-class outliers like myself and say ‘Hark ye! He pulled himself up by his bootstraps! Our draconian social policies work!’

The actual truth is that I owe my entire life to Australia’s welfare state, and I owe my career to hard work and to the work of librarians all over the world. So it bothers me when I stumble over news items about how libraries are in peril; it shouldn’t be the case. Apparently (this amazes me) libraries are not regarded as profitable. If an individual is too short-sighted or unworldly or unimaginative to know a library’s value, then they should be taken out of any position of authority immediately. I don’t know, he or she could learn how to make slippers or baskets or something and contribute to society that way. I don’t want anyone to think I am actually hostile to people who want to shut down libraries. I’m just saying I feel sympathy for their families.

These days I am still living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in an attic apartment between Harvard’s main campus and MIT. Harvard has something like seventy or eighty libraries (I’m on vacation so you google it), and the public libraries of Cambridge, MA, aren’t all that shabby either. You can’t hurl a book in any direction without being told to shush by a librarian, so I’ve learned a thing or two about them.

For instance, you have to be pretty careful what you say around librarians because they’re very proud of what they do and also very organized.

Let’s face it, there’s no advantage to be had in getting on the wrong side of these people. On the one hand, that is a sure-fire way of suddenly receiving huge and mysterious fines for late-returned books you’re not even sure you borrowed. No argument can be made against it either. The librarian will just stare you down, tilt the monitor around so you can see the screen, and then proclaim your guilt loudly for all the world to hear, “See? You borrowed The Joy of Prostates and didn’t return it for three years. And when it was finally returned it was in a conspicuously dampened state. So you can pay us nine-thousand dollars now or alternatively spend three years in a medium security American prison, which is like twenty years in a Russian-operated gulag. Have you read Solzhenitsyn? You can borrow it from that shelf over there after you pay your fine. Ha ha.”

On the other hand, suppose you live a great life. Suppose you become one of those celebrated persons of stature, universally feted by a grateful world for some highly-technical contribution or other to the arts or sciences. After you die, biographies are written about you. Statues erected. Candle-lit vigils and heart-felt eulogies are read at your tomb for a year.

But, for the purposes of speculation, let’s imagine that somehow you made just one mistake in life which was to be overheard at a party sniffing at the Library Sciences. It might have been a remark like this:

“I mean how hard is that stuff? All they have to do is put the damn books in alphabetical order.”

Look, I’d never say something like that in my life because I’m a prudent individual who never says anything that might be regarded as inappropriate. But, and we’re being hypothetical here, what if you are feeling churlish about a particularly mysterious library fine? What happens next?

Nothing. You simply die at your appointed time and time passes.

Five years go by, maybe six, but probably not more than eight, and then somebody gets it into their head to go down to the library and check out a biography written about you.

“The name is not familiar,” says a helpful librarian to your hopeful fan, “but I’m not sure that’s an actual historical person. In fact, there is no such person listed in our catalog. See? Look at the screen? Nobody of that name ever lived. By the way, have you paid your fine? It says right here that you were late in returning Bathroom Stall Curious: A Modern Man’s Field Guide to Finding Love and Adventure in European Restrooms.

“You can pay eleven thousand dollars in cash now, or spend two days having your rights interpreted by TSA agents who learned everything they know about the U.S. Constitution from Jack Bauer. Have you read The Constitution by the way? You can read it here in hardback, or alternatively on the super-absorbent pages that will be made available to you in a secret American detention facility in some friendly vassal state. No need to thank us - it’s our job to connect you with the information you seek. Why don’t you take this pamphlet, entitled Why Our Civilization Will Crumble Without Libraries. Have a nice day now.”

Keep up with my nonsense

and get my stories sent to your inbox

No spam, just good nonsense.